Tag: privacy


 Can We Please Stop Now?

Three thousand people died on 9/11 as a result of the worst terrorist attacks in US history. But ten times that many people die every year in traffic accidents, and I don’t hear anyone calling for an outright ban on automobiles. So this has clearly never been just a public safety issue. Maybe a 9/11-style attack once a generation is simply the price we must pay to live in a free society? There I said it.

I know the victims and their friends and family don’t want to hear that — they have no doubt found some solace in avenging the deaths of their loved ones by engaging in the sisyphean task of ridding the world of terrorists. But honestly, for the other 300 million of us in this country, who have had to endure the DHS, the TSA, and all of the other bullshit we’ve been enduring for the last ten years, we’ve had about enough of it, and we’re ready to try something different.

The stories about TSA agents groping our children, and asking our 95-year-old grandmothers to take off their adult diapers, is enough. Enough. But then, today, we are told that the next round in the arms race with al Qaeda is allegedly terrorists who are willing to have bombs surgically implanted in their bodies in order to thwart airport security. Really? If you thought cavity searches were bad before, wait until they start doing them arthroscopically.

At this point, it should be obvious to any thinking person that the government is impotent to respond to this. There are a number of quotes that come to mind. First from Frederick Douglass: “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they suppress.” I think we have just defined that limit. It is my sincerest hope that no American is going to submit to surgical inspections at security checkpoints. If you are reading this, and think this is at all a reasonable approach, do us all a favor and take your own life. The second quote is from H.L. Mencken: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed — and thus clamorous to be led to safety — by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Please allow me to introduce you to the newest TSA hobgoblin: belly bombs. One with an impressive pedigree that includes nail clippers, hairspray, three-ounce bottles of liquid, shoe bombs and underwear bombs.

How much farther are we willing to travel on this bus to Crazytown, America? I don’t know about you, but this is my stop.

 Bring A Clipboard

In a follow-up to my rant about Ameren’s War on Trees, I wanted to address another issue with public utilities and their contractors: easements. An easement grants the right to use the real property of another for a specific purpose. But just because an individual works for a company that has an easement, that does not excuse them from observing common courtesies. Namely, if you want to enter my property, you need to knock on my door (at the very least) and announce your presence, otherwise it is simply trespassing.

These unannounced visitors in our yard, invariably wearing bright orange vests, had become such a problem that we had to start padlocking all of our gates. Some may consider that reaction extreme, until you read about a scam that was just reported last week in which elderly homeowners were being lured into their backyards to talk with someone claiming to be from a utility company while an accomplice looted their house. So there are clearly people trying to enter your house or yard for nefarious purposes and using the utility companies as cover. It’s amazing what a person can get away with just by carrying a clipboard.

The only way to defend yourself from such people is to lock them all out. Make them show proof of who they are and where they are from. Treat anyone you see wearing a hard hat and a road crew vest with suspicion, as they are almost undoubtedly up to no good (even if they are legit). It’s your property, after all. You have a right to defend it. And the moral to this story is, if you want to rip someone off, bring a clipboard.

 I Speak For The Trees

[continued from Part 1]

After meeting with the contractor that Ameren dispatched to walk my property line and mark trees, he invited me to walk the line with him. I was glad I did. Not only did this give me an opportunity to recalibrate his understanding of easements, but it gave him a chance to come clean and admit that he had already marked a half dozen of my trees with orange spray paint — designating them for removal! These trees were nowhere near the easement, but he said that they look for trees that will become a problem in the next few years and remove them as a preventative measure. He was very reasonable, and agreed to cover up the paint so that Nelson Tree Service would not touch them. (If it were only that easy!)

In my second letter to Ray Wiesehan, I recounted all of this and included photographs of the trees that had been painted. I concluded by telling him:

I very much appreciate your time and attention in coordinating with me prior to the trimming activity. However, it will have all been a waste of time if this information is not communicated to the Nelson Tree Service crew who actually performs the work. I have erected four Private Property signs along my property line to aid the crew in determining where they are allowed to cut. I have done everything I can reasonably do to protect my property. Now it is my expectation that you will do the same.

It quickly became apparent that all of my work had been for naught. Despite my due diligence, there had been no coordination whatsoever on Ameren’s part. The showdown I had hoped to avoid occurred May 5, when Nelson Tree Service showed up with their Super-Axe-Hackers, ready to fell my beloved Truffula Trees. I explained the situation to their supervisor, Randy Jennings, and he was also a very reasonable gentleman, but his complete lack of concern for where his crew was cutting left me quite dismayed. I asked him if anyone had talked to him with regard to my property, or if he even had a map of the property lines. The answer, of course, was no, and obviously, without a map, easements have no meaning.

The irony is that Ameren’s own web site says, “Ameren may have to remove trees that we deem a high risk to electrical service … A contractor from Ameren will notify the homeowner regarding the need for removal.” This is nonsense. It is painfully clear that even if a homeowner goes out of her way to demand this kind of interaction, it probably won’t happen. No, the only way to protect your trees from Ameren’s hired vandals is to camp out in your yard and be ready to speak on their behalf.

 I Am The Lorax

I am not a fan of Ameren. Ever since I spent seven days without electricity in the throes of a St. Louis summer, there is very little that company can do to find favor with me. I’m sure I’m not alone. That incident in July 2006, where a half million residents lost power for days following some severe storms, actually gave Ameren enough of a black eye that they started to at least pretend that they cared about their customers. In response to the public outcry, Ameren launched an initiative to make their service more reliable. What they actually launched was a War on Trees.

I’ve always been a fan of trees. Spending your entire childhood right next to the woods surrounding a creek will do that to you. The value of a tree is difficult to quantify when you consider all of its benefits. Beyond the sheer beauty, there are the obvious environmental benefits, not to mention the financial benefits of a shade tree that makes your air conditioner more efficient. In our current house, I’ve discovered that the abatement of noise and visual nuisances is one of a tree’s most valuable functions. I’ve also discovered that unless you are willing to speak in defense of your trees, you are likely to lose them to people who do not care.

So let’s ignore for the moment that Ameren is a monopoly that acts as an agent of the government (which by itself is plenty of reason to despise them), and focus on just the impenetrable bureaucracy of a public utility. In March I received a notice in the mail from Ameren that they were once again beginning their quadrennial assault on our arboreal assets. In response, I fired off a letter to Ray Weisehan, “Onceler” of Vegetation Management, asking that he direct his chainsaw mercenaries (Nelson Tree Service) to carefully consult their maps before setting foot on my property so that they would know which trees were in the Ameren easement, and which trees to leave alone.

To my surprise, Ameren actually responded by dispatching a Jared Rielson from the Utilimap Corporation to walk my property line and mark the trees that should be targeted. One might expect that a contractor from a company called Utilimap would have consulted an actual map before performing his duties. One would be wrong. It also came as a surprise when I told him that Ameren’s easement extended a mere five feet on either side of their electrical lines, and not the ten feet that he had been led to believe. But the last surprise was on me when we finally walked the property together…

[continued in Part 2]

 An Active Crime Scene

A group of about a dozen gunmen surround a car stopped at a Miami Beach intersection and open fire, the muzzle flashes from their weapons lighting up the night. After brutally murdering the driver, and injuring four innocent bystanders, some of the gunmen start going after witnesses, assaulting them, stealing or breaking their cell phones in an attempt to cover up their actions. Detective Juan Sanchez described it as “an active crime scene.”

It was indeed. But perhaps not the type of crime scene we’ve all been conditioned to expect, since the gunmen described above were themselves Miami Beach cops. Their attempts to confiscate any incriminating video evidence of their deed is being portrayed as standard procedure in their search for suspects. Suspects? What suspects? I think all of the suspects in this case are captured in the cell phone video standing in a circle shooting (which may explain why three cops were injured as well).

One witness, Ericka Davis, whose mother is also a cop, stated that she could hear guns clicking as they continued pulling the trigger long after they had fired all of their bullets. “I think that’s excessive,” she said. Well, that’s an understatement.

The video was recorded by Narces Benoit, who was sitting in his truck with Davis when the shooting began. The video clearly shows a bicycle cop approach him with his gun drawn while another cop orders him to stop recording. Benoit was clever enough to remove the SIM card and hide it before they confiscated his phone (and allegedly broke it).

This incident just happened on Memorial Day, and obviously the investigation is ongoing, but one thing is clear from what has been reported so far. Benoit’s behavior is not that of a suspect, and the actions of the cops who assaulted him seem to go far beyond simply looking for documentary evidence. Regardless of what the driver might have done to provoke this gangland style slaying, there are certainly a few more guilty parties involved — or at least parties who are acting like they have something to hide.

 Where Do You Live?

Many years ago I remember hearing about a story where someone had the battery stolen out of their car. A day or two later, a brand new car battery showed up on their doorstep, with a note apologizing. The heartfelt apology described how they were down on their luck and needed the battery to get to work to feed their 12 kids, or something along those lines, and in the envelope were two tickets to a local sporting event, to act as compensation for their trouble. The homeowners attend the sporting event, and return home to find their house robbed of all of their valuables. I’m not sure if that story is true or not — it could just be an urban legend — but today I read this story about a cruise ship employee who robbed the homes of vacationers. The moral here, of course, is to not make it public knowledge when you are going to be away from home.

But if we dig just a bit deeper into this, and acknowledge that this was a matter of personal privacy, the moral to me is, never give anyone your real address. Get a post office box and use it for everything. Because nobody needs to know where you live — that’s none of their business. Now I’ll concede that choosing this path will make your life a bit more difficult. Your dentist’s office will call you and demand your real address, claiming that too many people use post office box addresses to skip out on their bill. If you order something online and have it shipped, the company will demand a shipping address, because they have exclusive arrangements with UPS or FedEx, and they don’t ship to PO boxes. The worst one so far, though, is the DMV. The State of Missouri does not allow you to use a PO box on your driver’s license anymore. Apparently, in order to drive legally, you have to live somewhere. I called the Department of Revenue in Jefferson CIty and asked what do I do if I am homeless? Does that mean I can’t renew my license? The simple but painful answer is yes. Sorry homeless people — you can live in your car, you just can’t drive it anywhere!

Not to mention the bigger problem of what if I lose my wallet? Whoever finds it now knows where I live. What if my car is broken into and my wallet is stolen? The crook now knows where I live, and also which house the garage door remote works. Call it paranoia, but as the true story above illustrates, there are plenty of people out there looking to take advantage of this private, personal information, however they can get it, and I believe that businesses and government — most importantly government — are obligated to help us to protect it.

 TSA Follies

Having spent a few weeks on the road this year, I’ve had more exposure to the TSA recently than I really care to. This, coupled with the announcement that the current theater that passes for airport security will be enhanced with random hand-swabbing, is enough to bring into sharp relief the myriad reasons that I dislike the TSA and everything for which it stands. This isn’t new, of course. I’ve written about the TSA before and that I believe common sense will eventually prevail, and the TSA will be relegated to the dustbin of history. I look forward to one day regaling my grandchildren with stories of the post-9/11 world, and their slack-jawed reaction to the sheer absurdities of this life. So here is the start of a collection of these stories.

In January, traveler Bucky Turco took a photo of a TSA agent sleeping on the job at LaGuardia airport. Granted, the agent was not on duty at the time, but gaffes like this do little to improve the TSA’s image. Also in January, a terminal at Newark was on lockdown after a TSA agent left his post, allowing a man to duck under the rope to say his goodbyes to a friend. I suspect incidents like this are fairly rare, but again, they do nothing to improve the general perception that the TSA is is suffering from a severe lack of professionalism. Whether you leave your post, or fall asleep on the job, no one is going to believe that you are taking the security of passengers seriously.

In yet another story from January, an agent in Philly tried to remedy his boredom by playing a prank on traveler Rebecca Solomon, planting a plastic bag of white powder in her bag, and then letting her off the hook with a grin and a “just kidding!” Using your position of authority to meet women was a helpful plot device in the recent movie She’s Out Of My Leauge, but when it comes to real life, these agents need to stay a bit more focused. The agent was subsequently terminated for this behavior, but it does lead one to question, where did that bag of white powder come from? Was this simply the desperate action of a lonely guy, or are TSA agents actually trained to use tactics such as this?

What about the agents that detained Ron Paul campaign staffer Steve Bierfeldt at the St. Louis airport in 2009? His quick thinking to record audio of the entire incident on his iPhone helped him win his case and reestablish some proper boundaries around the agency’s outrageous power grab. The TSA subsequently “issued a new policy directive making clear that its safety screening procedures would be strictly limited to passenger searches for the purpose of safeguarding flight safety.” We owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Bierfeldt for standing up for all of our rights, and striking a significant blow in defense of common sense.

 And It Came To Pass

…in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. — Luke 2, KJV

I guess the connection between taxation and the census is as old as the human race. But for roughly 150 years in this country (before we had an income tax), the only real purpose for the census was apportionment of representation in the House of Representatives, and, in that context, the only data necessary to the task are the raw numbers of population in each state. This is a legitimate function of the government, I suppose, to the extent that the Constitution itself is legitimate (which is certainly open to debate). But I object to what the census has become. It is now much closer to what we had when Cyrenius was governor of Syria than what the Framers had in mind when these words were ratified in the Constitution:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed… The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand…

Clearly the reason for the census was in support of this numbers game prescribed by Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, but look at what it has turned into: a competition between the states, each jockeying for the best position at the federal trough. And the first notice sent out by the US Census Bureau last week made no attempt to hide this perversity. Instead it celebrated it, pointing out that billions of dollars in federal funds were at stake, and that not participating would put your state at risk of not getting its fair share. Sorry, for people like me, that is not the proper incentive. It makes me want to drop the thing in the shredder rather than cover it with personal information about myself and my family and then mail it off to some faceless bureaucrat.

The census form I received states that “Federal law protects your privacy and keeps your answers confidential,” although there are numerous exceptions and exemptions outlined in Title 13, Sec 9 of the USC that governs the census. It goes on to say that “The answers you give on the census form cannot be obtained by law enforcement or tax collection agencies. Your answers cannot be used in court. They cannot be obtained with a FOIA request.” Despite these claims, the form fails to include a simple Privacy Act statement, mandated by USC Title 5, Sec 552e, which requires that “Each agency that maintains a system of records shall … inform each individual whom it asks to supply information, on the form which it uses to collect the information … the authority (whether granted by statute, or by executive order of the President) which authorizes the solicitation of the information and whether disclosure of such information is mandatory or voluntary.” This has been the practice since 1974 when the Privacy Act was passed, three censuses ago, so how can an agency that is already hypersensitive to the privacy concerns of American citizens ignore this requirement?

The form also says that anyone who does not provide the requested information is liable for a $100 fine. You know what? My personal information is worth more than that to me, so go ahead and fine me.

 Hey St. Louis County, Back Off!

Friends, neighbors, and relatives, lend me your ears. This is a supposedly free country, where we subscribe to various notions of personal liberty, privacy, and periodically reaffirm our commitment to things like the Castle Doctrine, which states that a man’s home is his castle. In other words, what goes on within the walls of our homes should be no one’s business but our own.

It is against this backdrop that the government of St. Louis County plies its wares. I know people, close friends and relatives, who have found themselves at odds with County government, but I haven’t felt compelled to expound on this until now. While at a picnic today, surrounded by people with whom I am familiar, but don’t consider close friends, I overheard two separate conversations (one while waiting in line for food, the other after I had sat down) by two different people, concerning their recent experiences with County government. This is as close to a random sample of St. Louis County residents as one is likely to find, so combining these data points with others I have collected, I am led to only one conclusion. The widespread interference in our private lives by St. Louis County government is not only increasing in frequency, but has reached intolerable levels.

These stories all center around permits. Permits for various home improvement projects. Projects that agents of St. Louis County government would have no knowledge of if it weren’t for 1) conscientious residents trying to do “the right thing” by applying for permits that they aren’t even sure they need, or 2) the government invading the privacy of its residents, all in the name of “safety.” So I have two messages, one for the residents and one for the County.

To my fellow residents, I say stop groveling! Stop begging for permission (because that is what a permit is) to exercise your inherent right to property. Do you own your house? Why should you have to ask anyone for permission to make improvements to your own house? Chances are you don’t own your house — it is more likely that a bank somewhere owns it. Would you call up your bank and ask their permission to remodel your kitchen? Or build a patio? Or finish your basement? Of course not. Why would you? It’s none of their damn business what you do with your house! So why do we all buy into this myth that it’s the government’s business what we do with our houses? How did they get involved in this, anyway?

To St. Louis County, I say back off! Stop violating our rights to privacy and property! Keep in mind, we fought a revolution against Great Britain for actions that were less egregious. One of these days you are going to pick the wrong resident, and like so many other sad examples (most recently in Kirkwood) of government pushing someone too far, you will find yourself on the receiving end of a violent and needless reaction. And even if it never comes to that extreme, is that what it takes to get your attention? Isn’t it enough to hear feedback such as this from your residents? Your involvement in our lives is unwanted, unnecessary, and adds no value. So why do we continue to tolerate (and fund) your invasive behavior? What good do we get out of it?

Some would argue that without government oversight of some kind, the projects attempted by some residents would be far from improvements. Some of them would be of such inferior quality that they not only detract from the value of the home, but could pose hazards to other residents. That is certainly true. My response to that is, so what? As Thomas Jefferson said, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” Which is more important to you? Your rights, or your property value? Not to mention the fact, that you and every other homeowner already have the power to keep the shoddy work in check. Every time you purchase a home, you have the right to negotiate with the seller to have their property inspected (by yourself and/or a qualified third party) to make sure that it does not suffer from any of this substandard work you fear so much. Likewise, the work you perform on your own home is subject to inspection when you go to sell it. Isn’t “caveat emptor” enough protection without sacrificing yet more of our liberties for a small amount of safety?

So next time you are considering upgrades to your castle, and you want to do the right thing, here’s what you do. First, keep your mouth shut about it. Don’t go asking for permission from people who have no right to tell you what to do with your property in the first place. Second, hire competent people who share your disdain for permits to do the work (if you aren’t comfortable doing it yourself). Lastly, if they come around telling you that you’ve violated some ordinance or some regulation you’ve never heard of, ignore them. If they keep bugging you, tell them to show you the law you are supposedly violating and then hire an attorney. Remember, they are counting on you to follow the path of least resistance, and to just roll over and pay your tribute to Caesar. If they can tell that they are going to have a fight on their hands, they just might leave you alone, and find someone else to terrorize. If enough of us do this, they will eventually go away entirely.

 The Undiminished Flame

In answer to the response to my last post, I thought I would elaborate a bit on copyright law.

My first assumption is that justice is served only when the victim of an injury is made whole. That is, the purpose of a justice system is to restore the victim to the point (or as closely as possible) they were at before the injury occurred. Justice is not about punishment or revenge. This is because the victim has a right to compensation, and it is only by exercising this right that justice is legitimately pursued. The victim does not have a right to punish or seek vengeance against their attacker. The only thing they have a right to is that which was taken from them as a result of the injury.

My second assumption is that the so-called “theft” of intellectual property falls into the rather large category of victimless crimes. And if there is no identifiable victim, then no crime has occurred.

So, a victim of embezzlement should have little problem proving that they suffered injury — one day the money was there, the next day it wasn’t. A criminal investigation would hinge entirely on the exercise of this victim’s right to compensation. Search warrants, obtained from a court, based on probable cause, would allow the legitimate suspension of a suspect’s right to privacy. In other words, the victim’s right to compensation trumps the suspect’s right to privacy.

Not so for the author of some intellectual property (especially that which is in some digital format). Theft does not occur when a copy is made because nothing is taken from the author. The argument that potential profits are stolen is also untenable because the author must then prove that the copies that were given away or sold at a lower cost would *still* be sold at the author’s asking price. Since this cannot be proven to any reasonable level of satisfaction, no injury has occurred. If no injury has occurred, there is no victim. If there is no victim to exercise his right to compensation, any suspension of another’s right to privacy in order to investigate the alleged crime cannot be legitimate. Therefore the law is unenforceable, and is no law at all.

Here is a brief excerpt from a letter detailing Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on this topic:

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me … Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody…”

This quote very succinctly sums up the issue for me. Society has attempted in the past to grant this exclusive right, but we have a reached a point where the will and convenience of our society are now in conflict with one another.

“Intellectual property,” as defined by our current laws, is no more property than the flame on top of a candle. Technology used to be such that one could not convey the flame without selling someone the candle. Today, that is no longer the case.

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